Even spies and assassins have a good sense of humor when it comes to poking fun at their enemies—just look at the woman suspected of killing the former heir apparent to Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea, while wearing a LOL shirt. It was no different back in the heyday of spy culture: buried in a trove of recently declassified CIA documents is a list of Soviet jokes from the 1980s that offer a glimpse of how American spies during the Cold War enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of their enemy.
First picked up by Russian media, a two-page document titled “Soviet jokes for the DDCI” (PDF) contains a list of 11 jokes told in the form of anecdotes about Soviet leaders and daily life under communism. The document, addressed to the deputy director of counterintelligence at the time, is part of a 13-million-page CIA declassified document dump put online in January.
Some of the jokes probably don’t make much sense to today’s reader. But others, like this one, are still in circulation in 2017:
An American tells a Russian that the United States is so free that he can stand in front of the White House and yell, “To hell with Ronald Reagan.” The Russian replies: “This is nothing. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan,’ too.”
Although there’s no real context for the jokes given in the document, Peter Clement, currently deputy assistant director of CIA for Europe and Eurasia, but who was responsible for Soviet analysis in the 1980s, recalls these jokes as lively entertainment in CIA offices. “The US Embassy in Moscow would send in a ‘jokes cable,’ usually annually, listing some of the better jokes that they had picked up,” Clement says. “At the end of year, they would do kind of an annual round-up, kind of a holiday gift if you will.”
“They were very reflective of the public mood,” he adds. “We all looked forward to getting it.”
These popular jokes were apparently shared among ordinary people in the Soviet Union. Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School University in New York and great granddaughter of Cold War-era Soviet politician Nikita Khrushchev, says the CIA document includes some of the same humorous anecdotes she grew up hearing.
“In Soviet time, no party would go without telling a joke, no kitchen conversation would go without telling a joke,” she says. And all these jokes were political, because “everything in Soviet Russia was political.”
The CIA typically declassifies documents 25 years after they’re created. Although this particular document isn’t dated, it was marked approved for declassification and release in September 2013. This means it was likely to have been created in 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union, whose failed policies provided plenty of material: his anti-alcohol reform gave birth to quips about drinking, for example.
Both Clement and Khrushcheva say it was under Gorbachev that political jokes became ingrained in daily Soviet life. “In Stalin’s time, this would not have been possible. If he knew the source of these jokes, those people would have been killed,” Khrushcheva says. Under Gorbachev—from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s—it was “a lighter time, when even the leaders knew these jokes themselves.”
“Gorbachev told me this joke himself,” Khrushcheva says, referring to the second joke on the list, which compares Gorbachev to Alexander Dubcek, a communist party leader of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek tried and failed to implement liberal reforms during the Prague Spring of 1968.
While humor can be weaponized as a powerful form of resistance, it is also reflective of the political atmosphere of a given time period. “Everybody knew the Soviet Union was collapsing. The feeling [was] in the air that this system is essentially dead,” says Khrushcheva. In contrast, she says, jokes about Putin are rare, in part because Russia isn’t nearly as politically repressive as the Soviet Union—so the average Russian feels less of a need to satirize the country’s politics.
“When your environment is open, you don’t need to make jokes. When your environment gets closed, you start objecting to the regime this way,” she explains.
Maybe one day we’ll hear more about political jokes in North Korea.